Keeper of the Flame
n thanksgiving my father asked me if i wanted to visit the Nazi. That’s what my father—a dentist to whom the Nazi had entrusted the care of his teeth—called him, what he’d always called him: “The Nazi.” As in: “Did I tell you who came into the office this week? The Nazi.” And: “Did I tell you that I talked to the Nazi?” And: “You’ll never guess what the Nazi told me.” And so on. The Nazi to whom my father referred was not a real Nazi—and, as far as I knew, my father didn’t call him “the Nazi” to his face. Neither had this so-called Nazi served under Hitler in World War II. Back then, the Nazi my father knew had yet to be born. And though my father had a pretty good idea of where this Nazi’s sympathies might lie, all my father said about him was that he had money, that he’d written a book about the Wewelsburg castle in southern Germany (the one that Heinrich Himmler had attempted to restore); that he’d built a castle of his own in a remote location in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina; that he, like my father, had an affinity for snakes, had fed white mice to copperheads he’d kept in terrariums; that he’d taken to leashing one of these serpents and walking it as one would a dog; and, finally, that his curatorial impulses and an affection for artifacts once belonging to members of the Third Reich had led him to build a private underground museum in the belly of the aforementioned fortress—a vault of ominous artifacts that my father convinced me I needed to see.
I’d spent a good part of my childhood visiting my father’s dental patients, many of whom lived deep in the mountains, in houses that might or might not have electricity or phones. During one visit, I’d watched a man yank intestines from a slaughtered hog. I’d been towed, with my sister, down a gravel road on a wooden sled roped to an ox. I’d gathered eggs in shit-strewn barns, run cobs of corn through grinders that worked by cranking a handle and spinning a wheel so that the kernels poured out of one rusted chute and naked cobs out of another. I’d been bucked from the back of a horse; I’d been charged—no kidding—by a yak. I’d sat on a quilted bed in the front room of a house owned by a man who, at sixty-some years of age, had not only installed his first phone but had also been receiving, as a result, vulgar calls from a woman who lived down the road, words so filthy he claimed he wouldn’t repeat them. But I had never before visited the Nazi.
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After my father and I had driven out of town, on a narrow two-lane road winding past ramshackle houses and trailers using sheets for window curtains, over narrow bridges spanning rushing streams and onto a gravel road where we passed multiple signs announcing that we were now on private property and that potential trespassers would be shot; after we’d reached the heavy-duty chainlink fence running the length of this property; after my father had dialed the Nazi’s number on his cell phone; and after the front gate glided backwards on lubed wheels—we drove inside and the house came into view. The Nazi’s house did, in fact, resemble a castle. It wasn’t exactly Neuschwanstein but it had rock walls and turrets and wooden doors with wrought iron hinges and arched windows. It had a fountain and an impressive series of stairs leading to the front door. The whole thing looked like something a government—though certainly not our own—had erected centuries before. We left the truck. I had the feeling we were being watched, that our movements were being recorded—that somewhere inside the castle, a bank of TVs flickered, monitoring different zones of the Nazi’s estate. My father grabbed me by the arm. “See that house over there?” he said. He pointed to the mountain opposite the one where we were standing. Glass glinted through the trees. I could make out a roof. “Yeah,” I said. “He bought that.” “Who bought it?” My father said the Nazi’s name. “Why?” I asked. “Privacy,” he said. “Privacy?” I repeated. “What does that mean?” My father shrugged. “I guess he doesn’t want anyone seeing what he does over here.” I frowned. “What does he do?” I said. My father made a face and shrugged.
I could not think about the Nazi, could not reflect upon him and his ilk, without also thinking about other people with similar ideas who had retreated to secret places in our mountains. While these mountains—which belong, in name, to the Blue Ridge—might have lacked the remote and indifferent grandeur of, say, the Rockies, they had other notable qualities, and precisely because they exist in a temperate region, and are well-watered by frequent rains, they have produced a semi-penetrable jungle of trees and shrubs—more varieties of plants, in fact, than anywhere else on the continent, home to all manner of wild creatures, from bear and deer and grouse to ticks, serpents, wasps, and skinks. So dense are these forests during the warmer months, so thick and verdant, that in many wild places a human who wishes to pass through them must do so either by crawling on his or her belly or by peeling back layers of briars and limbs and leaves.
It makes sense that these mountains have been—for centuries—a place for people who want to hide from the rest of the world, people who believe in boundaries and in drawing imaginary lines along a piece of earth and not only calling it theirs but believing firmly in the right to defend that piece of earth, and convinced that anyone who crossed that boundary had committed a crime that justified the firing of bullets or buckshot in someone’s general direction. This is not to say that all or even most people in the mountains will shoot trespassers, or that mountain people are not, on the whole, friendly or kind or generous or selfless, but it is to say that there are many people who seek out remote coves and hollows and other secret places with the explicit intent to do things that are not done within the sightlines of others, and that these mountains have had a reputation for attracting people with strange ideas. Take Nord Davis, for instance—the leader of a Christian militia who not only believed that the Holocaust was a fabrication devised in part to create sympathy for the Jews but who also believed, thanks to a rather acrobatic interpretation of the book of Genesis, that Adam and Eve were white-skinned and blonde-haired, that darkskinned people were animals without souls, and that Jews were the literal spawn of Satan, who had possessed one of these dark-skinned people and beguiled (or, in Davis’ interpretation, impregnated) Eve. Mr. Davis, who is now dead, also apparently took credit for ending the Vietnam War, and ran a 130-acre military training facility not far—as the crow flies, anyway—from where the Nazi’s castle now stands.
The Nazi’s garage door—like the front gate—opened automatically, by some unseen force, and after it slowly retracted itself, my father and I entered. Seconds later, another door opened, and the man himself—the Nazi—appeared. I’d been nursing the image of a slight man with pale skin: a malnourished weakling with a head of dark and greasy hair. But this guy was not small. He was tall and hearty, with a head of dirty blond locks cut in a quasi bowl-cut, with long bangs that flapped around when he moved. In a lineup of possible Nazis I would not have chosen this man—a fact that probably reveals my own naïve, preconceived notions about Nazis and their possible permutations. His wife, on the other hand, looked like she might’ve been created in a laboratory funded by the Third Reich: her hair—so blond it was nearly white—fell in a luminous sheet down her back. She was tall and wide-eyed, her lips crimson. She introduced and immediately excused herself, and our tour began.
The interior of the Nazi’s home could not have been described as regal, but it was—without a doubt—immaculate. Not only had it recently—if not immediately prior to our entering—been cleaned, but it was also completely clutter-free. There were no stacks of bills or mail on the counter, no dish of change, no stray pens, no stacks of coasters, no knickknacks on the window sills, no stained glass
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butterflies affixed to the windowpane above the kitchen sink. No family photographs—no photographs of any kind—hung from the walls. Papers and pictures and notes and calendars had not been affixed via magnets to the fridge, whose door remained utterly blank. Empty tabletops—devoid even of napkin holders or salt-and-pepper shakers—gleamed. The place felt sanitized, sterile. Here, at the home of the Nazi, a person seemed unlikely to catch any sort of disease. Rooms had been reduced to the bare minimum. Stuff—if stuff existed here— lived behind closed doors. I’d expected the Nazi to be effusive, perhaps even charismatic. I’d been told, on several occasions, that the Nazi had enjoyed seeing photographs my father displayed in his dental office of my towheaded, fair-skinned son, and that he, the Nazi, had jokingly and not-so-jokingly congratulated my father for laying claim to a grandchild with such striking Aryan features. Today, though, the Nazi didn’t mention my son, made no inquiries concerning my family or me. The Nazi was not, it appeared, interested in small talk. He knew why we’d come, understood the nature of our visit, which had less to do with the sharing of personal information and more to do with viewing “the collection.” And so, immediately after exchanging lukewarm pleasantries, the Nazi led us out of the kitchen. In the living room, as we stood upon plush white carpet, the Nazi cleared his throat and began pointing to various objects as he spoke—an oil painting of a Prussian king, an innocent-looking set of china that, upon closer inspection, revealed swastikas orbiting the rims, and a mantel into which some apparently profound sentence—in German—had been engraved. Meanwhile, the Nazi was giving a history lesson, explaining how the founders of the Third Reich had taken it upon themselves to do away with the Catholic Church and ignite a renaissance, to pay homage to their true heritage, which was pagan. I tried to listen, to take it all in, so I could remember it later—I had a movie camera in my pocket, a digital HD recorder the size of a cell phone, but I was too timid to ask if I could take pictures and too chicken to attempt to capture footage surreptitiously. I kept zoning out, trying to figure out how I could ask my most burning question, which was, basically, “so, like, are you really a Nazi?” Only I couldn’t think of a polite way to word it. Also, I knew that the artifacts in the living room were just the tip of the iceberg, and I wanted him to hurry up and get to the good stuff, which, as my father had told me before we arrived, was downstairs. In order to go down, we had to go up. That is, we had to climb to the second floor, to a balcony overlooking the living room. Up there, the Nazi opened an impressive wooden door—all the doors in the house were arched and hinged with wrought iron—to reveal yet another door, this one constructed from what appeared to be bomb-shelter-grade metal, and upon whose surface the words “Danger: High Voltage” had been emblazoned. The Nazi unlocked and then swung open this hatch-like door, and we descended a steep spiral staircase, passing near the top a recessed statue: a sculpted head of a soldier
wearing an SS helmet. Down, down, down we went, around and around we wound, so far in fact I could feel a significant change in temperature. Once we’d reached the bottom, the Nazi unlocked an iron gate and swung it open.
Until I’d entered the Nazi’s house, the only genuine Third Reich artifact I’d seen had been the one I owned, the one my grandfather, who’d served as a major during World War II, had given to me. I could no longer remember the occasion—my grandfather was long dead and now buried in the family plot in the woods behind my parents’ house—but somehow and under some circumstance, perhaps he was cleaning out a drawer in my presence, he had given me a button, upon which the Totenkopf—or death’s head skull—had been engraved, and which, as the story went, my grandfather had plucked from the field jacket of a dead Nazi. Now the button lived—as it had for the past couple of decades—in a black plastic box with crimson felt lining, a box that once housed a Remington Micro-Screen Rechargeable Electric Razor. Now the box held a bunch of coins that my missionary relatives had brought back from foreign countries, a smooth stone that I’d picked up from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, which I’d visited with my family as a teenager, on a trip through Europe, and the Totenkopf button. Over the years, I had opened the box and I had held the button in my hand, and I had imagined my grandfather yanking it off the coat in which the dead body lay, and I had thought to myself, this came from a real Nazi. It wasn’t just a button. It was a relic from an evil empire—the guys who, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, had gotten their faces melted off because they wanted to see something they shouldn’t have. They had—in Hollywood and real life— gone too far, wanted far too much.
The Nazi flipped a switch. The resultant clack reverberated. Light flooded the room, revealing a cathedral-like space with thirty-foot-high ceilings and a marble floor bearing the image of a sun wheel, which, if you aren’t familiar with sun wheels, resembles a swastika whose ends appear to have been lovingly bashed in to give the thing, overall, a more rounded shape. At one end of the room hung a massive tapestry bearing the image of the Tree of Life, which had, the Nazi claimed, as a pre-Christian pagan symbol, been important to the founding members of the Third Reich. Beneath this, a pulpitlike table displayed two wooden boxes, each bearing lightning-shaped Ss. These boxes, the Nazi had explained, had been made especially to hold copies of Mein Kampf, and served as gifts for SS officers on their wedding days: a token of the Fürhrer’s appreciation. Elsewhere: glass shelves of Hitler Youth daggers, polished and dangerously sharp; an SS officer’s ring, into which had been carved a grinning Totenkopf; ceramic platters embossed with Runic symbols; a hand-carved wooden plate depicting the Wewelsburg Castle, where Himmler hoped to reconvene the
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Arthurian Knights of the Round Table; a chair from the same castle’s great hall, leather bolted to its back and seat; a set of silver, whose handles had been engraved with Sig runes, and which had purportedly come from the Eagle’s Nest—the alpine chalet presented to Hitler on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. My father glanced over his shoulder at me and emitted a wheeze-burst of laughter—an exhalation intended to express disbelief. He had led me to an underground vault containing the artifacts of the last century’s most brutal regime, and he now seemed downright giddy. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to think or what to say. I found it difficult to process what any of this meant. That is, I didn’t know why it was here, how it had gotten from where it had been made to where it was now. Were we in the presence of some kind of monster? Or had he created this space for stuff he deemed historically significant, buried it in a moisture-controlled vault because he fancied himself one of history’s unbiased curators? Was this the product of an obsessive and sympathetic mind, one which interpreted the mainstream records of history as having been unduly cruel to the Third Reich, which had been a movement, in his eyes, about nationalism, about ancestors, about revering and honoring the past? I didn’t know. And, honestly, I was afraid to ask.
The Nazi handed me a black German helmet and explained why it was rare: all helmets of this particular kind, once the war started, had been recalled and painted in field colors. To find one that remained unaltered was exceedingly uncommon. And “exceedingly uncommon” translated into “quite valuable.” The helmet, if the Nazi saw fit to sell it, might fetch upwards of thirty thousand dollars. Normally, my father explained, as if to help me better appreciate the objects before me, collectors of Third Reich militaria collected one—or mostly one— kind of artifact, attempting to amass an assortment of one specific relic. The Nazi nodded. Some collected knives, some helmets, some field jackets, some medals. The difference in this collection was that it wasn’t a collection of only one thing. It was a collection of many things. The scope of this collection was greater. And therefore, it was more singular. For example, there were the mannequins. There were four mannequins, actually, each dressed in a different uniform. The uniforms included field jackets, pants, medals, shoes, knives, and belts. Apparently, the Nazi had purchased these mannequins from various department stores and carted them back to his castle, where he sawed off the heads. He then fashioned new heads—the Nazi, in another life, had worked in advertising and was something of an artist—and then—as if they were his own personal life-sized dolls—he’d dressed them in SS uniforms. But the thing about the mannequins was that each represented, as far as was possible, a painstaking reconstruction of a particular soldier. That is, the Nazi
had found a uniform and tracked down as many records of the actual soldier to whom it’d belonged. He’d identified and tracked down other possessions that belonged to the solider. He knew the soldier’s rank, his shoe size, his hair and eye color, knew exactly how many medals that particular soldier had received as well as the occasions upon which they had been awarded. The Nazi could tell you what this soldier’s favorite food had been, whether he’d been sick or injured or killed, and whether he’d suffered disciplinary action. I would like to say that I was disgusted, that the sight of the Nazi clothing and gear stirred some powerful revulsion, but down there, underground, I felt the seductive pull of visual design. The clarity and symmetry, the contrast of the red and white and black, the crisp lines and borders, the mysterious symbols, the glossy belts, the gleam of polished buckles— these uniforms, tools, weapons, helmets, and flags had been put together by intelligent artists from the finest and heartiest earthly materials. I hated to admit that these things were beautiful but I had no other choice. Not to say they were beautiful would be to diminish the sense of their power. And their power—however awful—demanded to be recognized.
“This,” my father said, “is history.” That is, he might’ve said, “This is history.” I don’t know. My memory can’t be trusted. I know I was there at the Nazi’s house; I know I went up and then went down; I know that I wandered in a cathedral-like space and looked dead mannequins in the eye and feared that they would, if I continued to stare, awaken. But I can’t remember everything—or, honestly, much of anything—that was said. What struck me more was the mood. The mood of my father: gleeful, reverent, inquisitive. The mood of the Nazi: not cheerless and not cheerful but rather, despite being intently focused, coolly detached. I do know that my father had said, as the Nazi retrieved for us some glittering knife or piece of china, that “it always makes me nervous” when he, the Nazi, reaches in and takes something out of the case—meaning that he worried that one of these artifacts might be harmed. But the Nazi did not approach these objects with reverence. He didn’t need to. The space in which they existed had already assured their status as objects to be revered.
Before we left the Nazi’s sanctuary slash museum slash dungeon and ascended to the kitchen, where the Nazi’s wife poured us coffee and offered us a platter of cookies; before the Nazi took a cookie, saying they never kept this kind of stuff—meaning sweets—in the house; before the Nazi’s wife reminded us that there had also been concentration camps in America, that it had been a time of war, that of course the camps had been such terribly awful places, but awful things had gone on so many places the world over; before any of that happened—the Nazi wanted to show us one last thing. This last thing was kept
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inside a glass case with a glass lid, which the Nazi opened. He secured the lid so that it wouldn’t fall, then opened an old leather-bound book and began flipping through its yellow pages. It was a ledger of sorts and inside it were the names of hundreds of SS officers. Finally, he pointed to a column of names. The surname was the same as the one that belonged to my father and me. The Nazi didn’t say, “Looks like your Uncle Walt was an SS man.” He didn’t say, “See, you do have Nazis in your family.” He just tapped the name with his finger. It was as if he wanted this—the fact that people with the same surname as ours had served under Hitler—to sink in on its own. To show us that whatever we might think about the Nazis, we were in fact connected, by the very name that I’d thought, as a child, separated our family from everybody else’s.
The sun had fallen below the ridgelines by the time we left the Nazi’s castle. My father drove us home. He wondered aloud what would happen to the Nazi’s stuff when the man met his demise, wondered if the Nazi had insured all those relics, and where his last will and testament—supposing he’d drawn one up— stipulated they would go. My father seemed concerned about the Nazi and his legacy, partly because he admired the lengths that the Nazi had gone to in order to amass such a collection, and partly because he seemed to think of the man as a friend. “A friend?” I said. I was incredulous. I said no way could he be friends with a man he merely humored, that true friends weren’t afraid to say what they thought, which was that the Nazi was (at best) misguided and (at worst) a lunatic; that he had constructed, unbeknownst to all the people living in trailers and cabins along this road, a private shrine to the Third Reich; that he apparently thought Heinrich Himmler was a character worthy of admiration; that he obviously thought the Holocaust hadn’t existed—at least not in the way most understood it; and that unless my father had come out and said what he truly believed, he was silently endorsing the Nazi’s viewpoints. I can’t remember how or even if my father had defended himself against these accusations, but I know he didn’t say what I’m thinking now—that I was in no position to talk. I’d said very little—if anything—during our visit. Though my mind had been lurching most of the time, seeking any sort of anti-Nazi argument, I’d feared that nothing I could drum up would be able to contend with the Nazi’s own encyclopedic knowledge. I’d even begun to wonder how I’d come to know what I thought I knew, and how was it that I could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Nazis were guilty of the crimes of which they’d been accused. In short, I had done nothing and said nothing to give the Nazi one single reason to think I wasn’t on his side. For all he knew, I might’ve been a man on a pilgrimage, coming to pay homage to the ephemera of a lost and once glorious empire. After all, he had pointed to my name in a directory listing the names of former Nazis—and I hadn’t protested. I had thought, wow, that’s messed up; but I had said not a word.
New England Review, Vol. 33, #1